Blog post alert: My interest in gardening history keeps me on the lookout for humble gardens, flower boxes, and pots grown in windows. In this image, other writers might take note of the laundry, the broken window panes, the proximity of the ramshackle building to the wall. And this is just a detail! For the full image and many more, see John Thomas Smith's Antient Topography at the ever rich Spitalfields Life.
Picturing a World
This drawing of a priest looking at an album of pictures appears in Framing the drawing. an article about Renaissance artists who drew frames around drawings they collected. I found the whole thing interesting—more ways to frame! —but what electrified me was this particular image. It's so suggestive for a character in a story. Look at the man's concentration, the delicate tension in his extended finger. Connoisseur, scholar, merchant, alchemist? He seems to be pointing to something on the upper edge of the page. Why? Pick up clues where you find them, I say, and let your imagination run.
My bedtime reading this week is Peter Dickinson's lively YA historical novel, The Dancing Bear. I first read it as a library book and then was lucky enough to come across a secondhand copy with its dust jacket by David Smee intact. I read it every few years, and this time around it seems as good as ever.
For the first time, though, I got to wondering about David Smee. I can't find much about him on the internet, although a Summary Bibliography of his works has images of many dust jackets and interior illustrations, including the jackets he created for Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea books. I can see how those covers would seem definitive to the readers who were introduced to Earthsea by them.
I admit I don't understand all the technicalities explained in this YouTube, but whoa! is Time-Travel Rephotography ever fascinating (and more than a little scary). If it does nothing else for historical fiction writers, it should educate us in the ways older cameras distort people's faces so that, given an old photograph, we can try to imagine people from the past more sensitively. But like all doctored photograph, it is also a reminder of the ways we can be manipulated by computer programmers—although for speculative fiction writers, just think of the doors it opens!
Via Gurney Journey's Bringing Old Photos to Life, which discusses it and another app. from a color-specialist and animator's point of view.
Website alert: Historical fiction may attempt accuracy (never achievable), a wild but serious alternative representation (Hamilton), or broad-stroked just-for-fun romance that should fool nobody (Bridgerton). Now, suppose you aim for accuracy. What a delight to find that doing so can still startle you out of conventional thinking. Consider these two heads of Caesar Augustus. On the left, the usual blank aura of marmoreal power. On the right, whoops! a somewhat worried weird young man. Now there's a stimulous imagination! It's not just that we need to realize that ancient statues were painted, it's that color helps us conjure up living people—and so, off you go to "HISTORY IN 3D" creates a series of accurate reconstructions of the first 12 Roman Caesars.
Yesterday, I attended an absorbing webinar on Boston artist Sarah Gooll Putnam. Every aspect of the topic interested me (see below), and I hope it will be posted to YouTube as planned. For this blog, it introduces one more excellent, little-known woman artist. Putnam was a successful portraitist in Boston elite circles, painting in a style reminiscent of John Singer Sargent and Cecilia Beaux.
An even bigger Wow! for the historical novelist are her voluminous diaries now digitized at the Massachusetts Historical Society. In them, she recorded daily events, illustrated her entries with drawings, and supplemented them with clippings and other memorabilia. If you have a hankering to undertake a story set in Boston in the latter quarter of the 19th C or early 20th, don't miss these.
Horrors! Steampunk facial recognition? Mannequin mind control? Bizarre external sensory systems? Pursuing Rachel powder a little further, I came across this Max Factor Beauty Calibrator at Cosmetics and skin: "Developed in 1932 it was supposed to measure how far a person's features differed from the 'ideal face.'" Surely, the time has come for it to inspire a sci-fi tale, preferably feminist revenge. Or, oh no, wait, historical fiction?????
Blog post alert: Tuesday's word of the day at the OED was rachel (or Rachel), defined as a "light tan colour (originally and chiefly as a shade of face powder)," with a first citation in 1880. Whoa! wait! what? A quick search landed me at Colour Cards. Bingo. The post has pictures of various 20th C color charts, including several for cosmetics, and a link to the website's own account of actress Rachel Félix, whose complexion reportedly gave the face powder its name. I suspect writers of historical romances have used Rachel poudre a-plenty, but it's new to me—and comes with a story. Yea.
Blog post alert: In 2020, Drēma Drudge, author of a lively blog about fiction and art, published a novel, Victorine with Fleur-de-Lis Press, which brings out first books by writers who have been featured in The Louisville Review. This historical novel is based on the life of Victorine Meurent, one of Édouard Manet's models who was a painter herself. All the arts are now and always have been hard, but they are more than deeply rewarding—they are necessary. Thanks, Drema, for reminding us of the stories hidden in the past and for keeping them alive through your own creativity today.
Blog post alert: I had a subplot about a theatrical company in the novella I'm working on now. A reader of an early partial draft said, "I like your actors, but I don't see where you are going with this." Neither did I really, so I removed most of it. Am ever I tempted to reinstate it, though, after seeing this image in the British Library's post, The Show Must Go On!